What Does It Mean to Be ‘Black’ in Africa?
Let’s consider what race is on a continent where almost everyone looks the same
I listened to Nigerian author and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during an interview with The Economist last night. She said that she didn’t know she was “Black” until she came to the United States.
The first time I pondered this thought, I was living in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The name Zanzibar is said to translate to “land of the Blacks” in Arabic. But no Zenji (or Zanzibar native) I’ve met thinks of themselves as Black. If they lived in the U.S., they would likely be labeled as Black, but generally speaking, the Zenjis I’ve interacted with claim Swahili as an identifier.
As an African American woman currently residing in East Africa for the last two years, I’ve often wrestled with how I should identify. What is Black? What does it mean to be Black? Who gets to claim Black? Who doesn’t? Because you look Black, does it mean you are Black? Am I reducing myself by self-identifying as Black? Am I Black?
I Googled, “Is black a color?” Google answered back, “No, it isn’t. Black absorbs light. It is not a color.” Anything associated with black in the Western world usually has a negative connotation: black cat, black as night, black comedy, Black person.
When were Africans in America first termed Black? Enslaved Africans have gone through many iterations of identification: Negro, Colored, African American, Black. At some point in our history, the location and ethnic group were no longer important. We weren’t people, we were property.
When a person of non-European descent is reduced to a color, they are stripped of their humanity, uniqueness, and culture. Their claim to a nation, clan, or definitive ethnic group is erased. And so, post-Civil War, formerly enslaved Africans began to label themselves. We were “Colored,” then we became “Negro.” Eventually, after the struggles of the civil rights movement and during the advent of the Black Panthers, Black Muslims, and Black Power, we began to claim Blackness with pride.
Since living abroad, I’ve learned that this isn’t the case in many parts of Africa. Racial labels don’t really exist because everyone there is Black. In most of Africa, specific ethnicity isn’t erased, it is celebrated.
Adichie went on to say in her interview that it wasn’t that she didn’t know she was of African descent and “chocolate” (and she would not want to be anything else), it’s just that in Nigeria, her ethnicity and gender led as opposed to in the United States, where race was at the forefront. In Nigeria, everyone is Black. Although colorism is present, there is no need to identify oneself based on the color of your skin.
The only Africans that I’ve experienced typically defining themselves as Black in large swaths are South Africans. This isn’t surprising since the United States and South Africa have very similar racial pasts. Boers learned their separatist Apartheid strategies from the American separate-but-equal playbook. In both cases, Black Americans and Black South Africans were given race labels by the very people who despised and oppressed them.
In Uganda, I am often asked, “What tribe are you?” and it doesn’t feel right to say “Black.”
Having lived in East Africa for two years, I have come to realize that many Africans define themselves by their tribe, clan, nationality, and religion. They have such pride rooted in their names which help to validate who they are and where they belong. Realizing this, I have struggled to think about how I want to define myself.
While living in Uganda, I was often asked, “What tribe are you?” and it doesn’t feel right to say “Black.” I typically respond, “I’m Black American or African American.” If I say that I’m American, they usually fill in the blanks for me. “So, does that mean you are niggaaa?” or “You are negro!” Sometimes they prod, “Okay, but where are you really from? Do you know where you are from?”
I do know where some of my ancestors are from in Africa. My family and I took a DNA test with AfricanAncestry.com, and the results stated that I was a descendant from the Mafa, primarily located in present-day Cameroon, on my matrilineal side and most closely related to the Mende patrilineally, who are indigenous to Senegal. When my answers don’t satisfy their curiosity, I default to those two ethnic groups or West African nations. But the truth is, many Black Americans have no idea where they’re “really” from.
When I was a teenager in the ’80s I was coached by my elders to claim Black whenever I was given the opportunity to choose. In school, at the doctor’s office, for employment, and on any form that was presented for me to identify myself, I had to select “Black” or “African American.” Even the NAACP would come to schools and churches to lecture us on the importance of checking the right box. I was told that if I didn’t, our community wouldn’t receive vital government funding. We needed all the help we could get lest those funds be earmarked for larger communities.
I loved my people, and I wanted us to have all that we deserved and more, so I always checked the “Black” box.
If you are of African descent in the United States and you don’t claim Black, you are viewed as a traitor to your race — an Oreo, confused. Similar experiences bind us: enslaved ancestors, grandparents from the South, the Great Migration, greens, cornbread, deep-fried everything, racism. Terrorism, Jim Crow, fear, lynchings, the hood, struggle, jazz, perseverance, invention, and triumph. Experiences solidify our Blackness. Racial solidarity is important. We are more powerful in numbers.
I am more than a color, more than a label. We all are more than the boxes society tries to put us in, and we should stand in our skin with pride.
In America, we have taken on Blackness with such pride that it’s a badge of honor — “I’m Black and I’m proud!” It is our identity. And we want every one of African descent to claim Black, but that’s not how it works. We also want them to be Black just like us in mannerisms, experiences, expression, and culture. We want them to be our type of Black.
On the low, African Americans want every person of African descent to regard White people the same as we do. We don’t understand why African students come to American universities and seek out White friends. What we don’t realize is that yes, slavery took place throughout east, west, and even some parts of southern Africa, but they didn’t experience Jim Crow, crack cocaine planted in our communities by the U.S. government, redlining, school-to-prison pipelines, widespread police brutality or gentrification. Again, South Africa is one of the few exceptions.
The United States has concocted a unique experience. It isn’t that racism hasn’t impacted people of African descent throughout the diaspora, but the way in which racism manifests in America is slightly different. America makes you choose. One parent might be Greek, the other Black, but in America, the one-drop rule is queen. It doesn’t matter how you choose to self-identify; if you’re not White, you are deemed “other.” If you are Black appearing, whether you like it or not, you’ve already been labeled.
Social scientists lament about how no one gets to truly be American except for White Americans. Everyone else is a hyphenated version of an American. Since living in Zanzibar and Uganda, my paradigm has shifted. Being labeled as Black seems to reduce me to a color — noncolor at that. But I don’t view myself as limited in complexity, variation, or dimension.
I view myself as someone with a proud heritage and a limitless future. I am a descendent of survivors who were stolen. I come from tribes and clans and lands with deep history and meaning. I am more than a color, more than a label. We all are more than the boxes society tries to put us in and we should stand in our skin with pride.
If we could all release ourselves from the false narratives associated with being Black, white, red, yellow, and brown I believe we could achieve so much more as individuals and as a nation.